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Opinion

Journey up 300-foot River to Civilization

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April 7, 2011

Dear Pennsylvania, How I loathe thee. If Virginia is for lovers, Pennsylvania is for haters. If Satan’s feces were rocks, then he must have taken a laxative and taken a big deuce all over your entire state. You will not be missed post-global warming.”
-Wazi, an Appalachian Trail hiker

Upon walking across the bridge for the third time, also being part of the Appalachian Trail that I was hiking, I located the trail I was looking for on the Blue Mountain Ridge. It was plainly visible that the mountain that was destroyed long ago by the Palmerton Zinc Company and placed on the Superfund list for toxic sites. I was hoping this was the one-and-one-half miles trail that led to the Borough Hall, rec-facility converted from a police station, in Palmerton, Pennsylvania. I traversed the bridge again and took a right at the west end of the bridge walking along the Lehigh River. Having never hitchhiked at this point in my life, I would have rather walked the one-and-one-half miles into town.

After walking for a tenth of a mile, I meet a mother in her mid-forties and her tween daughter on the trail. I asked them if this trail led to Palmerton. Her reply was, “more or less.” Was I that gullible to take such a vague answer? Yes, yes I was. I took the stance that a bridge would come “sooner or later.” I continued walking on the converted railroad bed of rocks that were the size of small baby fists. Having walked the past 15 miles over boulders every time I took a step it felt like a baby screaming its head off over spilled apple juice. Slowly the trail turned to dirt and rounded the mountain like rounding the circumference of a circle.

After walking one-and-one-half miles, I came to Palmerton, except it was 300 feet away on the other side of the river. Two thoughts came to my mind about the women; either she was really mean or ruthlessly incompetent. To me the obvious answer was cross the river by fording. I remembered seeing it done on the Oregon Trail game in elementary school and that did not seem hard. I walked down the muddy embankment grasping onto weeds, but never lost my footing, god bless my feet. I busted out my one dollar thong sandals from Wal-Mart. I know that a durability test for a Wal-Mart product is pure foolishness, but that is all I had. First step, my sandal got stuck into the coagulated mud, hastily pulling back and tested for rockier perches. It might be pertinent to say that the river pumps 28,000 gallons per second, and is waist high, and about 300 feet wide. Just a little over a third the size of the St. Croix River. Sure enough after a few steps I was waist high, knowing no good would come of me getting keeled over by the current with nearly 40 pounds of gear strapped to my back, I shielded my eyes from the sun, looked up river, and spied some anglers on a catamaran.

“Ahoy there is there a bridge nearby?” I asked them. “About three miles up river or one-and-one-half miles south,” they yelled. “Can I get a ferry to the other side?” “No.” To spite their lazy responses, I started fording the river right in front of them. They yelled to me again, “You’re going to die if you do that, go up river half a mile to where the rapids create the widest point in the river.” With a little something going in my direction, I scrambled up the embankment again and walked yet another half mile to the rapids. I scuttled down to the swatch of rapids and began my ford. Armed with my trekking poles that I thought of as opposable appendages I grasped my way like a monkey, slipping on many a rock across all 300 feet. When I gained solid ground, again I saw a rusty bent sign for the Palmerton Zinc Company in a soupy swamp. I walked another half mile to town, then I walked several blocks to the police station to sign up for the
Borough Hall, but nobody was there. I continued onto the Borough Hall and found a brute of an old man, he rose up to his full six feet wearing the face of a badger. I asked him about staying at the Borough Hall.

“Have you signed up yet?”

“Well I just went to the Police Station to sign up, but they were closed.”

“That’s not what I asked you, now was it?” He said it in such an accusatory tone that his face turned into a bull dog growling with goop dripping down it’s jowls. He clearly did not like indirect answers.

“No sir. I haven’t signed up yet.”

“Well, then you have to sign up if you want to stay.”

I was supposed to be one that was angry, but I sucked up my pride so that I could recover. His contorted face drew back and he handed me a bag of goodies including a granola bar, new toothbrush, and a small bar of soap. I walked down to the basement, which used to be an old police officers’ locker room and greeted Rocker, Forty, Cool-Tool, and Banana Cream Pie. Broken from the days toil, I lay down and went to sleep.

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.